Mass High Tech - UMass Is Transforming Online Learning Experiences Into Lifetime Opportunities.
By Kerry Joyce
While online distance education was hardly first out of the gate in the early and heady days of the Internet boom, it has proven to be one of the World Wide Web's real and lasting success stories.
Part of distance learning's success lies in the opportunities it offers those who must balance their need for education with family and professional responsibilities.
"It's a great way to for adult learners with family and work pressure to pursue their education," said David Gray, the chief executive officer of UMassOnline. "They can pursue their studies after they put the kids to bed or on the weekends, and they don't have to drive 45 minutes to attend a class."
With its online education revenues climbing by 30 percent and enrollments up 19 percent so far in fiscal year 2005, to an estimated 17,000 students, UMassOnline is enjoying its share of the success story.
More than a passing fad
Yet, at the outset many institutions of higher learning were skeptical of online education.
"A lot of schools were still sort of sluggish and saw it as sort of a passing fad in the late 1990s," Gray said. "It was seen as an iteration of the promise of television." Gray saw the Internet's interactivity as the key ingredient to its potential as an educational medium. Yet the slowness of Internet connection speeds, for many, held back the quality online course offerings. Content had to be developed that would serve the lowest common denominator - a 28K modem, Gray said.
The widespread availability of broadband, though, has allowed UMassOnline and other distance learning content providers to offer videotaped lectures and other content options that rely on a high-speed Internet connection for quality delivery.
Some online courses at UMass and other colleges and universities, for example, now use software to allow instructors to easily synchronize video lectures with their own PowerPoint presentations or text. Students can then skip around within a lecture as well as the PowerPoint presentation at the same time.
While UMassOnline keeps an eye out for new technology and is upgrading its learning management system, Gray said the bigger dimension now is the human side.
"What are the best practices? What are some of the effective ways to increase student engagement and improve course materials? What are we learning about which techniques work in the sciences versus the humanities and the social sciences?"
Toward that end UMassOnline works closely with campus faculty as well as pre-existing institutions such the UMass Center For Teaching, whose focus has long been effective teaching and learning but is now also turning its attention to the pedagogy of distance education.
UMassOnline offers 46 degree and certificate programs, including certificates in online journalism, homeland security and instructional media design, as well as more traditional programs in business administration, health care and liberal arts.
UMass Medical School
UMassOnline's latest initiative is through the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In February it launched a new online education program to serve physicians and health care providers. The courses allow healthcare professionals to stay abreast of trends, new procedures and techniques, and to meet their continuing education requirements.
UMassOnline initially proposed the online venture to the Medical School and even provided a loan that was combined with matching funds from the school to get started, according Cheryl Schied, vice chancellor for Faculty and Administration, and interim provost at The University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Since all of the course material and instructors were already accredited, the main task was meeting the technical challenges bringing the material online."It was an interesting project, Schied said. "We started by putting the lectures online and putting a team together. We didn't have a robust registration and e-commerce piece. And we had to carefully protect security."
The challenge of continuing education is no different for a physician as any other professional.
"At a teaching hospital like Brigham & Women's, there might be someone coming in once a week and providing a lecture. But if you're a busy community physician it can more difficult," Schied said.
UMassOnline has plans to expand to other areas as well.
"I'm very interested in getting in some of our outstanding engineering programs involved," said Gray. "It's just a matter of time."
UMass President Jack Wilson's also interested in leveraging the online program to help better establish lifelong relationships with UMass alumni, according to Gray.
"We have 300,000 alumni but only 200,000 are in Massachusetts," Gray said.
Wilson has suggested that some kind of a "maintenance contract" could be established to help ensure that UMass graduates will turn to their alma mater first when pursuing continuing education. UMassOnline is seen as an important part of that effort, Gray said.